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Offseason Headscratcher: Running Back Permutations

This week’s edition of our offseason headscratchers series turns its gaze toward the Cowboys backfield, where, other than Tony Romo, uncertainty reigns. One week ago, we looked over the different possibilities and permutations at the fullback, or "F-Back position"; piggybacking on that, we’ll look at their fleeter-of-foot backfield mates at halfback.

We’re not going to dwell much on who’s staying, who’s going, and why. That argument has been oft-rehearsed; our captain, Dave, lobbed the first salvo, in his post on Demarco Murray’s role in the offense. Assuming that Marion Barber is off the roster, Dave asks, will Murray supplant both Felix Jones and Tashard Choice players and take over the lead back role, as the so-called feature back? Or is he going to fill a specialized role in a running-back-by-committee approach?

Excellent questions all, which can only be answered in training camp. But its precisely these questions to which that the Cowboys coaching staff will be keenly intent on coming up with answers. By extension, those of us in Cowboys Nation should have this on our short list of "Things we want to know coming out of camp."

More after the break...

In his article, Dave writes:

The guy that should really be concerned is Tashard Choice. It's interesting that Choice has excelled when given the lead role in short durations, but apparently he hasn't satisfied the Cowboys coaching staff. His reluctance/failure to shine on special teams could also be part of the problem.

Again, this topic has been worked over pretty carefully; in particular, I enjoyed the back-and-forth in the FanPost section over the past fortnight. After an impassioned FP wondering why the Cowboys don't start Choice, last week’s FanPoster of the week, Coty Saxman, offered a compelling set of reasons why TC's been relegated to the bench.

The stats he presents confirmed what I had suspected: Choice has some holes in his game that don't mesh well with Jason Garrett’s offensive philosophy. As evidence, Coty points to a couple of studies in football geekery on which our beloved resident stathead, O.C.C. had offered superb posts. In the first of these, Cool refers us to a study at Football Outsiders which shows that Tashard Choice has the lowest broken tackle rate of all backs with a minimum of 80 touches. In the next, he cites the boys at Pro Football Focus, who conclude that number 23 has been the league's fifth worst RB in pass blocking efficiency with a 7.90 pass blocking efficiency. Yikes! Not pretty by any stretch of the imagination.

By comparison, Felix Jones finished among the leaders in both of these categories. Given his hands, open field running and pure speed, it should come as no surprise that Jones was the starter last year. Some have wondered whether Murray might supplant Jones as the lead back. Given these numbers, and the truncated amount of time Murray will have to learn the system, Jones will almost assuredly be the starter at the beginning of the season. Barring injury, I expect him to remain so throughout the 2011 campaign.

Given Choice’s struggles, which assuredly haven’t gone unnoticed by the Dallas coaching staff, it seems that Murray will be given every chance to win the back-up role—in fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he opened training camp ahead of Choice on the depth chart.  If all this is so clear, where’s the headscratcher, you ask?

It bears watching whether and to what degree the Cowboys coaches try to keep Felix healthy throughout the season by limiting his carries—in this case by giving Murray more opportunities to tote the rock. For me, however, the biggest questions concern deployment, and this is less about carries than it is snaps: how many plays will each guy be on the field? Most importantly, how often, and in what permutations, will we see multiple-back formations?

One of the reasons the Cowboys drafted Murray is because he’s an excellent receiver. I realize that this is both premature and blasphemous, but I think the Cowboys offensive minds might see him as Marshall Faluk lite. I suspect that Garrett has a whole package with both Jones and Murray on the field, in formations in which Murray (or Jones, even) lines up in the slot and runs receiver routes, which he did as a collegian, against defenses geared to stop the run. I bet there are some interesting running plays—including some option runs—in that package as well.

That said, the Cowboys coaches can’t know what, exactly, they have in Murray. How fast will he acclimate to playing against the big boys? Given that’s he’s likely to be an important factor in the passing game, will he be an effective pass blocker (recall that it was inexperience in this realm that kept Felix Jones off the field in his first couple of years)?  Does he have enough wiggle to create positive yardage on plays where the designated hole fails to open up—something we should still expect to see as long as Leonard Davis is on the roster?

Thankfully, running back is the NFL’s most plug-and-play position: guys either have it or they don’t. So, we should know pretty early in training camp (which is looking ever more likely to happen!) whether he’s got the goods and, by extension, how big a role he can be expected to play.  Here’s hoping so, because the offense that I think Garrett wants to run needs his versatility to run at maximum efficiency. 

And isn't that what all of us want to see?

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